October 28, 2017
Yesterday didn’t end with my piling into bed. Instead, I ate dumplings at a tourist restaurant, reclaimed my bags at the hotel, and trundled over to the train station. My life nearly came to a premature end as a reckless car attempted to race me to the other side of the pedestrian crosswalk. Nonetheless, I reached the train station with about twenty minutes remaining before my departure to Moscow!
From city to city
When I slept on trains during my 1994 vacation, I was generally stretching out across a bench seat (unless the train was full), though that wasn’t always possible. For the overnight run to Moscow, however, I paid a bit extra (20 percent?) to get a reserved bunk. The train car was split into what I’ll call “cells” with a continuous corridor stretching through them all, off-center. To the left side of the corridor were two levels of two bunks, running perpendicular to the direction of motion, with a table between the two lower bunks. On the right side of the corridor, where the lower bunk had a middle section raised as a table and the upper bunk was directly above. I was in the upper bunk, but oddly only one set of sheets had been issued to me and the fellow below me. I tossed it down to him since I was bundling in my hoodie.
I was asleep before almost any time passed, though I awoke slightly from little changes in the night, as in stops at minor stations. The lights in the train came back up at 4:45 AM, and we reached Moscow around 5:15 (though my memory of this morning is unclear). My best barometer that we were close came from seeing everyone don their shoes. Why had I taken such a potentially uncomfortable night of sleep to reach Moscow? It was because, at present, there is only one train running from Novgorod to Moscow each day!
Like a batch of zombies, the commuters flooded down the train platform. At this point, I was at a bit of a loss. I knew my hotel was in the southwest part of the city, but I was unsure where the train station I’d reached was located on the map. I could descend to the subway, assuming a station was nearby, but I wasn’t sure which station would be closest to my hotel. Lugging my 26″ roller back over cobblestones seemed like a poor idea. I found a cabbie, learned what the fare to get to the hotel would be (1500 RUB = $26 USD), and hit an ATM to refill my wallet. Off we went! He was a good sport and pointed out landmarks (in Russian). Twenty minutes later, we pulled up to a building that was glowing in neon lights. I had arrived at the Korston Club Hotel!
From hotel to the CBD
Just to be absolutely clear, I really love many aspects of Russian culture. The Korston Club, though, feels crass and glitzy. I felt as though I was walking through an early-morning casino at 6AM this morning, with loud music thumping without anyone there to dance. The staff have been uniformly listless, almost resentful that they must deal with me. When I get in an elevator, I must pray that the video screen doesn’t come to life with an obnoxious dance beat. This feels entirely unlike any other place I’ve been in Russia. To add to the experience, there’s apparently some sort of event taking place here that ensures that the downstairs area is continuously mobbed by children and their parents during daytime. These things happen.
After checking in, I almost immediately lumped into the bed and passed out. I came down to the restaurant barely in time for the end of the breakfast buffet. As I lingered over the food, a pair of four-year-old girls raced after each other in orbits of the restaurant. It was soon time for me to make the fateful decision; what should I see, with only three days to play tourist in this city?
I resolved to take the subway to Red Square. Surely some tourism option would present itself from this historic location. How could I get there, though? I marched outside and immediately realized I had a wardrobe malfunction. I’ve been using this winter coat since a conference on Electron Transfer Dissociation in Madison, WI, years ago. When I left the hotel, the zipper pull stopped closing the zipper, and when I tried to replace it, it came off. I tried again to repair it, and this time the front and back separated from each other. I’m just lucky it wasn’t a frigid day! The dusting of snow almost entirely melted away in the course of the day.
Google Maps had shown me a Line 1 (Red!) station was quite close, and the route ran straight for Red Square. For some reason, the map showed the station in the middle of an automobile bridge across the Moskva River. I found the bridge, and from an overpass, I saw no sign of a pedestrian lane to reach it. I wandered a bit through the park flanking Prospekt Vernadskogo and found a paved road, apparently leading beneath the bridge. Sure enough, it led me to a lower layer of the bridge, given over to the subway. 110 RUB was all I needed to pay for a two-use ticket. That’s a far cry from the 1500 RUB one-way taxi ride!
It really didn’t take any time for me to reach the Okhotny Ryad station, and the minute I came above ground, I had a little shocking moment as buildings I had only seen in web photos were suddenly right in front of me. As I wandered in the mob of tourists, I tried imagining the historical footage I had seen of this square, with military units passing in review. I assume the leaders of the Communist Party would be sitting in the towers of the Kremlin Wall that overlook the square. Of course, St. Basil’s Cathedral is very eye-catching, and it’s not a tiny gem, either. I didn’t feel ready to handle the mob of people seeking tickets.
Instead I turned to the east side of the square to enter what was once the GUM store. Its history is a bit complex. The shopping arcade was built under Catherine II to replace a market area that burned in 1812. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, 1200 stores occupied the complex! The Communists sought to transform the space to be used for a more socialist model of market, and that failure led to Stalin changing it temporarily to office space. With the end of Communism, GUM returned to a private shopping mall, and it has embraced that role with enthusiasm! If you can name a very high-end brand, you can expect to find a store here. I was a bit mystified to encounter my first Manolo Blahnik shoe retailer here in Moscow (I’d heard of the brand only on TV). I raised an eyebrow to see how popular the ice cream stands were at the mall. People seemed very happy to shell out 50 RUB (less than $1 USD) for an ice cream cone.
The State Historical Museum
I left the mall and resolved to do at least one touritsty deed that I had on my list. The answer was right in front of me: the State Historical Museum! I had hoped to have a little more brain power for the day I attempted it, but I’m going to run out of time waiting for that! I paid for my admission fee, but again I decided against the cumbersome and expensive audio guide equipment.
Since it’s right on Red Square, I feel sure that the State Historical Museum gets plenty of visitors who don’t feel comfortable communicating in Russian. Sadly, the museum doesn’t make very good provision for them. At least on the first floor, one can read a little bit about major displays in a room or, more commonly, the history of the display room decor from a laminated sheet in a pocket at the doorway. Almost none of the exhibited materials, however, have labels in Latin lettering or in English. The situation gets even more dire on the second floor, where the laminated sheets are only in Russian. Only one room on the second floor had English-language labels, and it covered the room furnishings and outfits for privileged society in nineteenth century Russia.
I had a particular exhibit in mind for this visit, though, and I am frustrated that I couldn’t seem to locate it. I wanted to find the “Novgorod First Chronicle,” an artifact that gave us most of our information about Novgorod’s early democracy. It was mentioned tens of times in the history museum at Novgorod, and yet the earliest manuscript containing this information is located at the history museum in Moscow. I saw plenty of books in the relevant time period (thank heavens the Russians use Roman numerals to indicate centuries), but I couldn’t really discern which was the Chronicle. Perhaps it wasn’t even on display! As I was leaving the museum, I saw a lovey inch-thick volume describing all the treasures of the State Historical Museum, and it was in English! I think I found the right book in there. Sadly, the book I found was 4800 RUB ($83 USD). It’s a little pricey for a book that I might never open next year.
I admit I expected a higher standard of accessibility from a museum in such a prominent location. The exhibits were of good quality, and they were quite varied. I enjoyed the chance to get a photo standing beside scientist Mikhail Lomonsov, who appeared in a large-format portrait. We scientists must stick together!
Why, though, did the museum have almost no exhibits whatsoever concerning Russia after the revolution? Surely the USSR counts as a key period of history for this country. All I saw to acknowledge the Communist era was a Rolls Royce used by V.I. Lenin. It’s a puzzling omission for this major museum.
Decanting my brain and feeding my stomach
With that, my adventuring spirit was satisfied. I thought I might go be assertively American by eating a hamburger at the Red Square McDonald’s, but I couldn’t get in. The lines of customers stretched out the door! I walked along the outside of the Kremlin wall for a few minutes and then shrugged, walking back to the Red Line to my hotel once more. As I walked up the path back to my hotel from the subway station, I passed a couple of horse-mounted police officers in the park.
For dinner, I checked the options in my hotel, but they were expensive and had crowds of children outside. Instead I walked east along Ulitsa Kosygina toward Third Ring Road. I soon found the “Илларион Кафе” or Illarion Kafe. The bar seemed very active, but a quieter dining room looked alright. They even had an English-language menu, though the manager apologized that the prices had risen since it was printed. She agreed that prices in Moscow were generally higher than in the rest of the country, in part because it’s such a large city. I really enjoyed my lamb shish kebab and grilled vegetables. Even though peppermint tea wasn’t on the menu, they still found a way to produce some for me.
Yes, I think there’s a lot to like in Moscow, if you know where to find it!